lightbulb2-mdI have what you might call obsessive compulsive tinkering (that’s a self-diagnosis). I love tinkering. The feeling one gets from taking an idea existing solely in the mind’s eye and creating a physical, working prototype is like none other.

Tinkering also forces me to learn. That is also why I think I did relatively poor in grade school, education was purely an academic pursuit with no practical applicability. On the flipside, that is why I thrived in college while in pursuit of an engineering degree. The theoretical was finally holding hands with the practical. This is why I am so vehemently opposed to Common Core curriculum. But that’s a tangent we’re going to skip for today.

You would think constant and endless tinkering is a sure sign of someone suffering from adult attention deficit disorder. In fact, it is the exact opposite. Being excited by so many topics that are both related and disparate requires extreme attention to detail and discipline. I wanted to share my system with you, but please don’t accept this as prescriptive. It is a framework you should tweak and adapt for your own needs and capabilities.

My “100:1 Funnel” strategy is as follows (oh, how it desperately needs a better name!):

100: I keep a notebook with 100 project ideas and areas of study that I want to learn. Doesn’t matter how wacky or how unlikely I will actually pursue the topics contained on the list. This notebook is my “idea catcher”. You never know when a random idea may come to forefront as a potential solution to solve a newly discovered problem. My list sometimes contains more than 100 ideas, but the top 100 make it onto a brain map. This helps me visualize relationships between topics and helps illustrate the progression of topics that I need to study. It also helps in prioritizing my study topics. A node that has a lot of related topics is ripe for the picking. This is the day dreaming phase of work.

25: Of those 100+ ideas, I keep various notebooks in Evernote for the top 25 ideas or topics. These are the ones I am most likely to pursue in the next year or two. When I have time or find a random article on the Internet about one of these topics, I save it in Evernote. If I have a good idea about a topic, I will make a note. In short, this begins the narrowing down and fleshing out process. Picking what goes on the list forces discipline to limit myself to 25 topic areas. I pull topics into this top 25 list but looking for things that are practical and have the potential to solve a very particular problem. Or topics that seem that will be important to clients. Then sometimes I just pick things that I think are going to be plain old fun to learn. This is my research and prioritization phase of work.

10: I pick 10 of the 25 ideas I am tracking in Evernote and favorite them. These are the ones I am doing regular research on. Perhaps not every day, but I am actively engaged and hope to start prototyping in the next 6 to 12 months. Here I am sketching out circuits, writing some pseudocode, and making sketches for final designs. In short, this is my brainstorming phase of work.

3: Form the list of 10 ideas I am actively pursuing, 3 will be on the front burner. I am either actively prototyping these projects or will start in the next 1 to 2 months. I might be testing circuits in simulator or even breadboarding particular subsystems, writing blocks of code to prove concepts, or beginning to do the CAD design of mechanical components. This is my experimenting phase. Trying a bunch of possible solutions before settling on a final design to refine. This is also where money gets spent on materials and tools as needed. Buying supplies before a project reaches this phase just helps to create a nice inventory of parts and stuff. Before I would buy parts whenever and many would get stuck in drawers; never see the light of day again. Then I would forget about them and buy the same part again later for another project. Waiting to buy parts until you actually need them saves on storage space and money.

1: A very special project on the top 10 list is the project I am working full-time on. It is the one that I am committed to getting working 100% within the next month or so. I am documenting the heck out of my work. Photographs, sketches, and code is being saved up to GitHub. When I get stumped or frustrated, I may go off to another lower priority project to give my brain a chance to work the problem offline. As I get to the polish phase of this one special project then I may start writing a blog post, doing videos, cleaning up the code comments and refining schematic diagrams. If the project warrants it, I may start doing a PCB layout. Once I get to the polish phase, I start ramping up one of my top 3 projects to be the new #1. This is my polish phase.

So there you have it, my system to keeping the innovation and self-education train running 24/7/365. I will also note that another key is to do things that are completely unrelated to any of this. For me that is photography, ham radio, gaming, geocaching, and flying my little quadcopter. These activities help to get my mind of problems I have encountered and can serve as inspiration for a new topic that I will want to look into … one day … after I get done with this one … or that one. 😉

What are you secrets to keeping the pipeline full of new ideas and project to work on?


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